When Toddlers Scream

hi, janet.  i’m a former actor, current Ph.D. student and mom of a 15-month-old.  your website and your advice have been really inspirational as his father and i navigate early parenthood . . . mostly joyfully, although we get as tired as anyone.  i thought this question might have relevance for your audience, so if you get a chance to consider it, many thanks. 

Miles is a pretty easy going kid, and really loves to communicate.  now that he has some language (and signs), his exuberance at making his thoughts and wishes known is growing by the day.  when we “get it”–like if he wants water, and we get him some–he grins and laughs, and starts nodding enthusiastically while he says, “yeah!  yeah!”

i’m writing because recently he’s started screaming.  like, really loud, high pitched screams.  often it’s the first sign of any discomfort or dissatisfaction–like, he’s in his high chair, about to munch on some toast, and suddenly–screaming.  i’ve been looking him in the eye and saying, calmly, “that’s too loud for inside.  it’s hurts my ears.”  or, “i can tell you’re upset, but that’s too loud.  tell me what’s wrong?”  it’s so unlike his newly expressive language; i can’t tell if he’s just experimenting with sound, or frustrated that there’s something he doesn’t know how to tell us, or limit-seeking or what.  sometimes the screaming is part of impatience for food or the frustrated desire for something we won’t let him have, but other times it seems kind of random. 

of course, our faces must also betray the natural shock of the sudden noise, and sometimes a very disapproving, “Miles, no!” slips out. especially for my husband, who has particularly sensitive ears.  i figure it’s okay for Miles to know that the screaming upsets me–i mean, he’s not a dummy; i’m sure he knows we don’t like it–but i want to discourage this in a way that’s respectful, firm and effective.  (oh, janet, sometimes it’s REALLY loud.  really.  loud.  it’s like it stops time.  my husband referred to it as “wearing a helmet made of scream.”)   and unlike when he’s experimented with whacking us in the face or climbing on furniture, i can’t physically block him from doing this. 

are we going about this in a healthy way?  is there something else we could try?

many, many thanks.  for all you do!



Hi Lindsay,

First, know that screaming is common toddler behavior and can be caused by any of these things you are postulating: “experimenting with sound, or frustrated that there’s something he doesn’t know how to tell us, or limit-seeking”. But it would only be ‘limit-seeking’ in that it’s a test to see the effect his behavior has on you and your husband… a test of his power.  That definitely doesn’t mean you should try to limit him from doing it as you would behaviors like the “whacking”.

Anyway, as you say, that’s impossible. You can’t “physically block him from doing this.” And, though it hurts your ears, it’s not unsafe for him. It’s an earsplitting way to express himself, but it doesn’t come under the heading of Unacceptable Behavior. Not for a 15-month old. They key is to react to the scream as little as possible, preferably not at all.

With screaming (or shouting or whining), I believe it best to remain unfazed, but stay present and just wait. Instead of asking “What’s wrong?”, I would just say as calmly as possible, “When you’re done, I can try to help you”. Have that be your attitude: I’m here for you. I’m waiting. I’m not going to get wound up. Sometimes you won’t say anything, you’ll just wait.

Since the screaming is becoming habitual, I wouldn’t even get into acknowledging what the scream is about unless you’re sure. Then, when he’s done you might say, “You didn’t want me to buckle your car seat. You wanted to do it yourself.” “It’s hard to wait when you’re so hungry.” Or, “You had some strong feelings about that.”

I know, I know, I know it’s hard not to react when it’s so loud and catches you by surprise. Go ahead and hold your ears, but do it calmly. It’s okay if you have a little reaction, but then try to compose yourself so Miles doesn’t feel too uncomfortably powerful. The sooner it becomes an uninteresting, ineffective, unthreatening (to your sanity) thing to do, the sooner he’ll be able to stop doing it, or at least do it less often.

Some of these screams could also be early tantrums, releasing some of the healthy feelings of frustration he’s having while learning and growing rapidly. His enthusiasm around language development and the way you are handling it sounds wonderful, but there will be times (as you say) when he can’t communicate the things he wants to tell you, which will lead to frustration and possibly screaming or tantrums. The accelerated learning that happens in the toddler years is exciting for a child, but hard, too, and sometimes Miles might need to express how hard he’s working.

Educator Patty Wipfler clarifies this beautifully in her video about “tantrum triggers”.


And here’s one of my podcasts on this subject:

Remember, this too shall pass and probably sooner than you think. For perspective, Miles probably wouldn’t do this with a caregiver he didn’t know as well or feel as comfortable with. He screams with those he loves. Sort of a backhanded-compliment? Later on, you’ll no doubt look back wistfully at these days…and if you’re as sentimental as I am, you might even miss those screams (hmmm…but probably not).


I share many more suggestions for handling toddler behavior in
No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame

(Photo by A. Witt on Flickr)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Hi. You say that screaming out of frustration is acceptable because he’s a toddler-how about a three year old? What strategy should I use if my three year old screams out of frustration? It’s hard to be with him and wait till he’s done with my one year old who gets frightened by his screaming. Thanks!

    1. Hi Jaime – The best way to handle to screaming is to allow it and see it as positive venting, including when a child is 3 or older. If you are in public, I would help your child to a more private place, the car, etc., so that others aren’t disturbed. I actually doubt that your one year old is frightened by the screaming, though the one year old may be disturbed by your reaction to it. The one year old has had enough exposure to his or her sibling that the screaming, though it might startle, should not frighten. If the child reacts, it’s usually more of an empathy response… they hear their sibling screaming and they express feelings along with them. So, I would try to back up and take a look at your perception of the screaming and see it as a therapeutic way of venting strong feelings. This, too, shall pass!

      1. Hi Janet,
        I’m experiencing a similar situation to Jaime. My 2 year old daughter has been screaming a lot lately, not out of frustration but mainly just to test her limits (and also because she’s quite a loud and enthusiastic girl). We have a 4 month old son who is extremely jumpy and cries out of fear anytime she screams and will wake up crying as well after a scream. We cannot ignore her screams since it impacts her brother so much. We’ve explained to her that when she screams it scares her little brother or wakes him up when he needs to be sleeping. She’s smart and extremely empathetic and understands this but I guess because of her age she can’t help but keep doing it. We’ve recently resorted to putting her in a 5 minute time out in her crib after she’s screamed. I spend the first 2 minutes explaining to her that she’s in a time out because she needs to calm down and that she cannot scream. I then leave her and go back after 3 minutes. I didn’t want to resort to time outs but I don’t really know what else to do. If it wasn’t for her little brother I wouldn’t mind ignoring the behaviour but given how frightened he gets I don’t feel it would be right to do so.
        I know that the birth of a sibling is very difficult for a toddler. She acted out a lot in the first 2 months (trying to hurt him and having a lot more tantrums) but after 2 months she suddenly started to go back to her old self and clearly loves her brother now. I know that she’s probably still working out some feelings about having to share our attention but this can’t go on.
        Please let me know what I can do differently to help curb this behaviour.

        Thank you,

        1. We are in the exact same boat except the older sibling is 3. Janet’s previous answer kind of seemed to be “let the child scream” but I find that unacceptable. It’s extremely disruptive to our (and our neighbors’!) lives.

    2. robin charbonneau says:

      My boys 4 and screams especially when he wants something

  2. Thanks for this article. Our almost-19-month old is going through an ear-piercingly loud screeching phase. Thankfully it’s usually only once or twice a day (but then repeated many times) and it’s pretty random, usually when he’s otherwise in a good mood – I assume just testing what he can do with his voice. Unfortunately, he has been doing it in our hotel room in the last 30 minutes or so before bedtime. We’re already in as private a place as we can be, yet if he keeps screeching, it will definitely bother other guests. We don’t have a car here, and it’s a huge property that would take us at least 10 minutes to get from our room out of the building. We’ll be here a few more nights… any suggestions? Thank you!

    1. Robin Floren says:

      Granddaughter is 13 months. Has been screaming since months. Just walks around house screaming on top of lungs. Has two older siblings which are totally unaffected. I’m concerned. Limited words hi, wave, no patience to sit and play. Runs around. Very happy baby. Laughs, dances. Why screams?

  3. Hello, what is your suggestion when the screaming simply isn’t acceptable for the situation? For example we live in an apartment and have limited furniture at this point so it echoes quite loud and neighbors have complained. Additionally what do you do in public settings when the child has this behavior and risks disrupting those around them?

  4. Karen Patton says:

    Both my sons began to vocalize with very high-pitched screams at exactly this age (15 months.) I determined that they were not protesting, uncomfortable, etc. The problem was when they were in the car seat behind me and they did it. I would suffer from temporary hearing loss with pain in my right ear. My pediatrician gave me the “put both hands on his face and tell him that hurts mommy’s ears.” Well, that didn’t work, and it didn’t address the car events. The older child outgrew the phase quickly, but the younger one enjoyed it too much.
    Yes, it’s normal. However, I sustained long-term diminished hearing in that ear, so not so great for me.

  5. Hi Janet,

    I appreciated your response to the question above. My concern with my 13 month old’s screaming is that I can remain calm and unaffected, but my 3.5 year old daughter can’t. She will go right up to him and scream back at him or wave her hands in his face. I can see that usually when he screams, it is when he sees his big sister and is trying to communicate with her so when she responds, he is essentially meeting his goal. Since he now knows his screaming is effective in getting his sisters attention, I don’t see his screaming ending any time soon. It now turns into a back and forth scream off between my 2 children. Any suggestions here? Thanks in advance. Your words are a grounding point for me in this parenting journey.

    1. Hi Breanne- I know it’s challenging but I would allow these interactions to play out without your judgment.

  6. I really don’t mind if he screams when he’s upset, but my child (fittingly, also Miles!) has a special, horrid scream he does just for the fun of it. I try to be unruffled but the noise is so unnerving that it’s like trying to do math while being tortured. Faking unruffled hasn’t worked because he can still sense it’s bothering me even if I’m trying to hide it, so he intensifies it. I know my reaction is making him feel too powerful and perpetuating the behavior. Is it okay to remove myself from the situation somehow to keep myself calm – like, telling him he is welcome to scream in his room with the door closed, or pulling the car over and standing beside it for a few minutes while he gets it out of his system?

  7. Hi, I have an 18 month old also experimenting with the reaction to his volume. My husband and I are able to not react to him when he shrieks. But my 4 year old daughter can’t handle it. She gets so upset. And her reaction is what my son gets so much glee from. How can we support her in this situation?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

More From Janet

Books & Recommendations